Analysis: England’s defence peaking at just the right time

Date published: September 10 2019

Our analyst Sam Larner returns to Planet Rugby and this week he touches on England’s impressive defensive form and Georgia’s backline woes.

Before the World Cup I thought I would leave you with a bit of a pick and mix of some trends and interesting stuff I saw in the final set of games before teams pack up and head out to Japan.

We’ll start in Newcastle where England dominated Italy after a slow start.

One of the most impressive parts of the game for England was their 11th minute 24 phase defence which ended with Italy centre Tommaso Benvenuti dropping the ball five metres out. There has been some unusual discussions, which aren’t backed up by fact, since Wales won the Six Nations. Wales needed the three Grand Slam bonus points and a remarkable Scottish comeback to win the 2019 Six Nations. For many that was an unsatisfactory ending. Of course the rules of the competition state that if you win all five games you win the tournament. If you win those games 5-0 or 45-44, it doesn’t matter. Wales chose the first approach, an exceptionally stout defence and fairly unadventurous attack. That approach has been generally derided since, with pundits claiming boatloads of points is the way forward. The truth is that a solid defence is always a positive thing and England showed that they are peaking defensively just when it matters last Friday.

First, the bad. These phases happened because England made a defensive error and allowed a clean break. What will be concerning is that this happened on the second phase. Italy got a small maul going from the lineout and then peeled out the back. A quick recycle trapped English forwards on the wrong side of the ruck and as they realigned they couldn’t keep connected.

Sebastian Negri simply straightens up and runs into Jamie George and Owen Farrell. They both go high but neither can stop Negri from freeing his hands and popping the ball out to Carlo Canna. The reason why Canna has such a big lane to run through is because the defence is not connected to one another.

After those early errors, things got much better for England. Mark Wilson was particularly dominant defensively. In this example you can see how he hits low to break-up the potential Italian two-man drive. Italy spent pretty much all 24 phases within five metres of the English line but they couldn’t break through.

One of the keys for attacking so close to the opposition line is that you should always have an overlap. The short carry is such a threat that teams pack their defenders tight around the ruck and largely neglect the wide areas. When attacking teams put a few quick carries together the defence can find themselves all tightly packed and then just a couple of passes result in a try. Here Dan Cole counter rucks and draws three further Italian players into the ruck. Italy then have six in the ruck while England have committed just one. The wide open spaces are no longer there for Italy.

When the ball finally does come out wide, England don’t find themselves with a single player defending a whole ranch of space. When the Scarlets won the PRO14 they did it, in large part, by stealing balls in the tackle by ripping it from the attacker. It is hard to know whether this is a mistake by Jonny May where he goes too high or a deliberate attempt to rip the ball. When he does go high though May sees that Benvenuti is holding the ball in one hand and May rips it out to end the attack.

England made a mistake in letting Canna launch Italy to just five metres from the line. However, they bent but didn’t break and Italy ended up wasting 24 phases. In the next 70 minutes the Italians failed to add any points. During the four games England played in the warm-ups they didn’t concede more than 20 points once. If they can replicate that at the real thing they might find themselves playing seven matches in Japan.

There has been a lot of talk about Georgia heading to the Six Nations. I believe that they are currently a large stride below England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France and a step behind Italy. This World Cup will decide whether their burgeoning reputation grows or stutters. They need to be competitive against Wales and Australia and pick up wins against Fiji and Uruguay. If they leave this World Cup with only a single win there will be less incentive for Tier One teams to play them.

Unfortunately, Georgia are suffering from a complete absence of backs. Nowhere was that more apparent than during their Friday night trip to Murrayfield. At half-time Georgia were losing 10-9 as they let Scotland make mistakes and then kicked the penalties they gained through their scrum. It wasn’t a particularly exciting game plan but it kept them in the match. That was until the second half when Scotland stopped making mistakes and Georgia started playing a much more expansive game plan.

When Georgia decided to go wide they gained some yardage but they also struggled to keep hold of the ball. Georgia won just 92 percent of their rucks. That meant they consistently piled pressure on themselves close to their own line. In this example they lost the ball when they carried it out wide and Scotland scored just a couple of phases later.

It can be tempting to think that Georgia’s lack of attacking back play is a decision but I disagree. I think it’s a much more fundamental issue; lack of skill. This is uncharacteristically Georgian play, they choose to chip the ball over the defence just five metres from their own line. You have to get the ball around 10-15 metres forward to land in that spot where no Scottish players are. You then need to trust that the bounce goes in your favour. Fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze can’t do that and Peter Horne just turns around and walks it in.

Combine that lack of attacking play with some suspect and simple defensive errors and Georgia look like their progress has stalled. In two games against Scotland, games which they would have expected to be competitive and maybe even grab a win in Tbilisi, they scored a single try and just 19 points. We know what their forwards can do, the real question is what the backs can pull out of their box of tricks.

Short takes

– Japan will need to ensure they keep their first choice hooker, Shota Horie, fit. Not only does he fill the Dane Coles role of hooker turned wing he also nails the lineout. Atsushi Sakate started against South Africa and lost two of his first three lineouts and only just grabbed the missing one after a communication error. Japan don’t need to dominate the set-piece, but it does need to be serviceable to get them attacking ball.

– Uruguay have spent the summer losing at home to Spain, narrowly beating a South American XV at home, beating Brazil comfortably and losing to an Argentinian XV. Success for them is not conceding 100 points against Australia or Wales and keeping within 25 points of both Georgia and Fiji. A good World Cup for their 22-year-old lock Manuel Leindekar from Oyonnax would also bring them some much needed attention. We are a number of years from them really competing, in the way Samoa or Tonga say, do at the World Cup.

by Sam Larner